“The Happy Stranger”
Composed by John Benson Brooks; arranged by Gil Evans.
Recorded by Claude Thornhill and His Orchestra on November 4, 1947 for Associated Transcription Service in New York.
Claude Thornhill, piano, directing: Paul Cohen, Louis Mucci and Eddie Zandy, trumpets; Vahey “Tak” Takvorian and Allan Langstaff, trombones; Walt Wechsler and Sandy Siegelstein, French horns; Bill Barber, tuba; Danny Polo and Lee Konitz, alto saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Mario Rollo, B-flat clarinet and tenor saxophone; Mickey Folus, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone; Bill Bushey, B-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, and baritone saxophone; Barry Galbraith, guitar; Joe Schulman, bass; Billy Exiner, drums.
Much of the history of the swing era has been played out in Manhattan. I was not really aware of this when I first traveled to New York City fifty years ago as a high school senior. But I was aware of a tiny bit of that history then, and in the decades since my first visit, I have gradually learned quite a bit more about the history of swing, jazz, classic Broadway music, American Popular Song, and how they are all intertwined with New York City. Those who have had the misfortune of being with me when I was hunting for this or that location in Manhattan where some musical history was made, or where some artist lived, can attest that my interest in these places is often hard to understand.
One rather large place in Manhattan where I have found very little evidence of the history of swing or jazz is Central Park. Although I have reported previously on this blog about the softball games played by certain swing bands’ members against each other on the fields near the southwest corner of Central Park, there is almost nothing more to report. But there is a little.
Deep inside Central Park is a remarkably wild place called the Ramble. The Ramble has within it a forest, a cave, a lake, and several ponds. One way of entering Central Park to get into the Ramble is from Central Park west, at a gate at West 81st Street. Here is a little story about a pond in the Ramble, and the great arranger Gil Evans (1912-1988), who at the time this story took place lived in the West 70s, just west of the Park.
“On a golden day in early October 1987, Gil Evans was walking with a friend through some of the densely wooded paths in the middle of Central Park. He walked deeper into the woods and started rummaging around in the pockets of his well-worn jeans and flannel shirt.Leaning against a big old oak tree. He pulled out a gnarled hardwood pipe, which he filled with marijuana from a leather pouch.He wordlessly offered the pipe to his companion and slowly took a couple of puffs. He then took out a small bird whistle. …The whistle’s lifelike trill …attracted scores of
birds, who flocked around the huge oak within minutes.Evans named ten or so varieties of birds whose calls he could pick out. His fascination with sound was as keen as it had been when he was a child.” (1) “…[T]hey then wandered to a part of the [woods] where there was a small hidden pond, totally surrounded by deep foliage in late summer.’I used to come here and there was never anybody around. I’d just take off all my clothes and jump in the water.’ Gil Evans — spontaneous, unpredictable, and out there to the end.” (2)
If Gil Evans was unpredictable and spontaneous, so was his musical associate, the pianist and bandleader Claude Thornhill (1908-1965). (Links to information and other music made by Claude Thornhill appear at the bottom of this post.) The meeting of these two gentle yet strong individualists took place in the fall of 1938 in the dance band that backed 1930s singer Skinnay Ennis. That band, which had been started and built by Gil Evans in southern California in the mid-1930s, was taken over by Ennis as a result of machinations by Music Corporation of America (MCA), the booking agency that represented both Evans and Ennis. (Consideration of such niceties as conflicts of interest never figured into the business plan of MCA. Their objective was to relentlessly pursue profits, period.) MCA had decided that Evans was not “commercial enough” as a leader. Ennis, who had spent a number of years as the featured vocalist with Hal Kemp’s very successful middle-of-the-road 1930s dance band, was.
The “new” Skinnay Ennis band debuted in the posh Victor Hugo restaurant/night club in Beverly Hills, California on April 14, 1938, with Gil Evans as its pianist and arranger. The band and Ennis were immediately successful, and through a series of events and backstage maneuvers eventually were hired as the band that would support entertainer Bob Hope on his new NBC network radio show sponsored by Pepsodent tooth paste. That show debuted on September 27, 1938. Soon, Gil Evans was swamped with work as arranger for the Ennis band, and Skitch Henderson was hired as pianist for the band on the Hope/Pepsodent show. To help Evans with the arrangements for the Hope radio show, Claude Thornhill, an arranger who was experienced in all aspects of commercial music, was summoned from New York in late October.(3)
Thornhill was remembered as “pixieish,” (and) was even then, a heavy drinker who also consumed endless cups of coffee and cigarettes. Gil Evans had ‘a fixed image in my mind from that time, of Claude with his cigarette holder and his eternal cup of coffee. They were his badges. So were his Adler elevator shoes.'”(4) But whatever personality quirks Claude Thornhill had, he was a first-class musician, a talented arranger with very personal ideas about how a band should sound, and a dextrous keyboard artist with an exquisite touch at the piano.
The band Claude Thornhill formed in 1940 struggled in its first year due to a series of misfortunes that had nothing to do with its music, which started out good and just got better until Claude enlisted in the Navy in the fall of 1942. From mid-1941 until the band broke up, the Thornhill band enjoyed substantial success because of its unique sound, and because Claude’s friend, Glenn Miller, provided him with a business/management system that ensured competent, aggressive management. Claude also surprised many of his friends and musical associates by being an effective intermediary between his band and its music, and the audiences who came out to hear his band. He had an excellent speaking voice, and used it like he used his substantial piano technique, minimally yet efficiently.
If there were ever two musicians who were sympatico, those two musicians were Claude Thornhill and Gil Evans. By the time Evans joined the Thornhill band as an arranger in the fall of 1941, the musical personality of the band had been well established. And that musical personality reflected Claude Thornhill’s approach to music.The instrumentation of the Thornhill band in late 1941 was similar to the instrumentation of the band six years later. Evans applied his musical ideas, which were extensions of what Thornhill was doing, to what he wrote for the Thornhill band in 1941 and 1942, and then again in Claude’s postwar band. Evans continued expanding the sonic palette of the postwar Thornhill band until the the late 1940s, when he moved on to other musical endeavors. In the 1950s, Evans and trumpeter Miles Davis, who loved the music of the Thornhill band, joined forces to create some memorable music including Miles’s Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain albums for Columbia Records.
Thornhill entered the Navy on October 26, 1942, initially as a member of Artie Shaw’s Navy band. Soon however, he had his own group, and served his tour of duty in the Pacific Theater of war. He received a medical discharge from the Navy in September of 1945, but it took a while for him to regain his health. His postwar band debuted on April 10, 1946. It also achieved success through 1946 and 1947, but was a victim of a changing popular music and jazz scene (and another ruinous musicians’ union recording ban), in 1948. Claude Thornhill led bands on an off-and-on basis from the early 1950s until his death in 1965. In fact, Thornhill and his latest band were playing an engagement at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey when on July 1, 1965, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
“The Happy Stranger” is a tune that was composed by John Benson Brooks.(5) Gil Evans wrote an arrangement on it in 1947 for the Thornhill band.The languid tempo he used allowed Evans to employ the instruments in the Thornhill band, particularly the B-flat clarinets, bass clarinets, French horns, and the tuba, blending them in unusual ways, so that the sounds they make can be heard.The recording presented above is quintessential Thornhill. One is immediately struck by Claude’s minimalist piano playing. Despite his considerable keyboard technique, he always concentrated on touch and tone, that is, creating beautiful sounds. Although he was not a jazz pianist in the sense of someone like Bud Powell, who would improvise extensively using the chords of a tune as his guide, Thornhill nevertheless understood jazz completely, and used its techniques. It is significant that he, like many great swing era pianists, played just a little behind the beat. This imparted a relaxed feeling to his music that was essential to what he was trying to achieve with the overall sound and floating rhythmic feel of his band.
“The Happy Stranger” is also quintessential Gil Evans.The Thornhill recording, which times out at 2:41, contains one full thirty-two bar chorus, and an extended ending passage. It presents the essential basic parts of Evans’s arrangement, but not the totality of it, which is presented in the brilliant performance below (in magnificent sound) by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra.
The Thornhill original begins with Claude’s piano playing the melody for the first eight bars (there is no introduction). Among the many sonic treats one hears are Evans’s deployment of the three B-flat clarinets playing soft organ chords, and the two bass clarinets creating a gentle, rocking ostinato. After the first eight bars, there is a subtle transitional passage in which the softly played French horns and tuba are blended with the two trombones, which are played into their metal derbies. The effect is like the first appearance of light in the eastern sky before dawn.
In the second eight bars, the Harmon-muted trumpets are added to the sonic mix. Note the rich harmonizations and the low counterlines to the melody provided by the bass clarinets. There is a lot going on here musically: note the use of harmonies superimposed on one another. The sun has begun to appear.
Evans used the eight-bar bridge of the tune to place Thornhill’s crystalline piano tones against a background of sounds created by the various groups of instruments. The musical effect, though subtle, is stunning.
The fourth eight-bar segment is essentially a reprise of the first eight bars. But Evans is not finished: the final section, which is an extended ending, once again places Thornhill’s floating piano sounds in the foreground, first against almost silent rhythm, and then atop a warm brass finale. Magical music.
“The Happy Stranger”
Recorded by the Dutch Jazz Orchestra on April 27-28, 2006 at Wisseloord Studios, Hilversum, the Netherlands.
John Ruocco, bass clarinet, directing: Jan Oosthof, Ruud Breuls, Mike Booth, trumpets; Martijen Sohier, Ilja Reijngoud, Hans Jorg Fink, trombones; Rene Pagen, Roel Koster, Morris Kliphuis, French horns; Martien de Kam, tuba; Marco Kegel, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Albert Beltman and Hans Meidjdam, alto saxophones and B-flat clarinets; Ab Schaap, tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Simon Rigter, tenor saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Nils van Haften, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Rob van Bavel, piano; Martijn van Iterson, guitar; Jan Voogd, bass, Eric Ineke, drums.
The music (continued):
This recording of “The Happy Stranger” is a marvelous example of how twenty-first century musicians who are skilled and sensitive can bring the music of the swing era vividly to life. It is also a great example of how recording technology has improved in the six decades between these two recordings. Of course, all of the technology there is does not guarantee a beautiful recording. The people turning the dials have to know what they are doing. Clearly, all of those variables came together perfectly in this performance and recording.
Pianist Rob van Bavel plays the role of Claude Thornhill beautifully. Many musical details not audible in the original recording are present here to be savored in all their glory. Note for example the brushed snare drum, the the rich, low sound of the tuba, and the beautiful resonances of the clarinets and the brass. The entire spectrum of sound is captured here with exceptional fidelity.
It should also be noted that this performance, which runs 5:08, contains the parts of the original Gil Evans score that were omitted from the original Thornhill recording.
(1) Gil Evans…Out of the Cool, His Life and Music, by Stephanie Stein Crease (2002), page 1.
(3) An additional arranger, John Scott Trotter, was also added to the Ennis staff in 1939.
(4) This quote appeared initially in Whitney Balliett’s profile of Claude Thornhill, which appeared in the New Yorker. Later, the Thornhill profile was included in Balliett’s compendium of articles in a book entitled American Musicians II. Much more information about this time in the careers of Gil Evans and Claude Thornhill is provided in Stephanie Crease’s book Out of the Cool, cited above at 53-70.
(5) John Benson Brooks (1917-1999) was a pianist,composer and arranger, who was a friend of Gil Evans. After the swing era, Evans recorded Brooks’s “Where Flamingos Fly.”
The recordings presented here were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.